Departing Showtime boss out-HBOed HBO

Mon Jun 28, 2010 1:24am EDT
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By Andrew Wallenstein

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - If there could be said to have been a quintessential Robert Greenblatt moment in his tenure at Showtime, perhaps it was the debut of one of his biggest successes, "Dexter."

On paper, it didn't make much sense. Why cast the milquetoast middle son from HBO's "Six Feet Under," which Greenblatt produced, as a dangerous but somehow likable serial killer other than the fact that Michael C. Hall had HBO credentials?

And yet just minutes into the opening episode of "Dexter" in 2006, it was clear Hall was accomplishing a transition highly difficult to make on TV. He slipped so effortlessly out of the character for which he was known into such a different one that it was as if he was imposing amnesia on the audience.

Hall made it work, and by extension so did Greenblatt, who would go on to do it again perhaps even more improbably with Edie Falco, who escaped the overhang of an even more iconic role on "The Sopranos" to take on "Nurse Jackie."

And therein lies the genius behind the derivative but still distinguished Greenblatt era at Showtime: He may have recruited a lot of HBO players, but it took a playbook of his own creation to score with them all over again.

Greenblatt, who is expected to stand down after a seven-year tenure, may not have been cable original programming's biggest success story, but don't underestimate his feat: he summoned the sun into HBO's shadow. He transformed the dynamic of the HBO-Showtime competitive dyad, remaking the network's No. 2 status from the also-ran you pity to the underdog for which you root.

To some degree, his success was less his doing than the fleeting undoing of HBO. The waning years of the Chris Albrecht/Carolyn Strauss administration were ones where the network was flying so high its head got lodged in the clouds. Recall thumbsuckers like "Carnivale" and "John From Cincinnati" and it's tempting to conclude HBO was blinded by its own temporary Midas complex. It's as if the pay channel believed its subscribers would watch anything as long as they slapped the HBO brand on it.

But at the very same time HBO was losing its way, Greenblatt was refining the formula for scripted originals. Premium cable has always worked by mixing the profane and the profound, but it's tricky to figure out the right ratio. He didn't hit home runs right off; there was an awkward couple of years where "Huff" was passed off as the next big thing, but even that forgotten drama got Showtime on Emmy's radar.   Continued...

<p>Robert Greenblatt, president of entertainment, answers questions during the Showtime Executive Session at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in Los Angeles, January 14, 2009. REUTERS/Phil McCarten</p>